Of Robots, Once Judged

I’m a little late getting to the criticism of the recent auto manufacturer advertisement featuring an assembly line robot being fired. The critical party has already kicked off with a fervor that has apparently produced results, but I’m still going to weigh in with my two cents. The argument and the results that it achieved were neither the argument that needed to be raised as a result of the commercials, nor were the results that were achieved appropriate.

The furor that was portrayed as erupting in the popular media over the recent ads, these ads having been first unveiled during one of the many big games of one of the many incarnations of the (!Sports Bowl!), were raised by an organization for the prevention of suicide whose charter includes, not surprisingly, raising awareness of and increasing prevention of suicide. Their primary beef with the ad in question is that in the course of the advertisement’s short storyline, a redundant robot, unable to find fulfilling or fitting gainful employment following getting the pink slip for workplace incompetence, throws itself off a bridge, kissing all prospects a wistful goodbye in the hopes of a shameless oblivion.

The offended organization objected to the ad based on the portrayal of suicide. The auto manufacturer made an amendment to the end of the ad in question in response, removing the automaton’s final act of surrender from the short story arc of the commercial spot’s montage.

In the new version of the commercial, the robot does not “kill himself”, but the overarching message of the commercial’s plot remains intact. That is the insidious thing.

The commercial’s portrayal of a robot being fired from its assembly line job for a single act of incompetence most willfully calls to mind the original automation of operations this conglomerate of conveyance manufacturers’ undertook- the push for automation that vaporized Flint, Michigan, the story of which is recounted in filmmaker Michael Moore’s breakthrough documentary, Roger & Me.

In the commercial, human and robot coworkers alike, apparently working in a peaceful and accepting harmony, look on sorrowfully as the management types eject the robot from employment for dropping a screw. This creates the first false impression of the ad, the impression that humans and robots on the assembly line are equals and can and do recognize each other as such, in spite of the acrimonious history between workers and management over the introduction of automated labor devices to the factory setting.

Workers and robots are not on an equal footing. For one, robots are obviously not human. They do not have human needs such as the need to eat or the need to support a family. They do, however, displace workers who, for a few generations were brought up solely to work in the plants of the auto manufacturers.

The second false impression created by the commercial is the apparent legitimization of the company’s hiring and firing practices. In the commercial, the management is seen to be fair, in that it runs its business according to the same middle class values as its human workers- when someone is incompetent, they are not allowed to ascend to the acme of success, but are instead penalized with redundancy. However, can it be said that this company’s drive toward profit for a few, one that cost so many livelihoods, was legitimate in its execution? Can it be said that the automation of the assembly lines and the ensuing loss of jobs was predicated on the same values as the middle class laborers whose lives were altered?

The third false impression perpetuated by the commercial is that the replacement of the workers and the atomization of the community the company supported, apparently undertaken under the directives of middle class values, was legitimate intrinsically, and not undertaken irresponsibly because automation was based on rags-to-riches, hard work will get you everywhere middle class values.

Overall, the commercial also serves to trivialize the induced sublimation of Michigan’s prospects from stuff to vapor in its portrayal of human workers comfortably working alongside their replacements as though it is a natural state of things that has always been accepted. One of the very gripes brought up in Michael Moore’s documentary Roger & Me was that this manufacturer attempted to herald its commitment to progress once before with an Epcot-like display of humans and robots working happily side by side singing some song about, essentially, moving forward at the cost of the human laborers’ own displacement. In poor taste then, and no less so now, It’s obviously not something that the company has put to bed as far as talking points and the influence of public opinion are concerned.

Robots cannot kill themselves. To suggest that they can and that it is funny is to mock the plight of the mob of unemployed laborers this company created. Robots would never feel pressed to review that as an option, unlike the laborers their implementation displaced.